Tefillin on Women? Feminist Prayer Group Challenges Chabad on Its Own Turf

As well as a steady stream of insults, bewilderment and even spitting, members of Women of the Wall find some takers at their phylacteries booth

An ultra-Orthodox man looks on as a woman lays tefillin prior to praying in Jerusalem, July 1, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Orthodox Chabad rabbi beckoning male passersby to perform the mitzvah of laying tefillin is virtually a fixture on this busy downtown Jerusalem thoroughfare. Today, though, he’s got some competition on his hands — well, sort of.

The multidenominational prayer group Women of the Wall has set up its own phylacteries booth just a few meters away, here on Jaffa Road. Like the Chabad rabbi, the feminist activists are also approaching pedestrians, offering to help them wrap the small black leather boxes around themselves in accordance with Jewish custom. But unlike him, they are only seeking out women.

Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall’s long-standing leader and a highly recognizable face in this city, takes the lead in approaching potential customers.

A few thank her but explain they haven’t the time. But most aren’t that polite. “What, do I look like a man to you?” one religious woman snaps in response to her offer.

Women laying tefillin at a phylactery prayer booth in Jerusalem, July 1, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

“God forbid,” says another.

But that’s hardly the worst of it. “You should all burn in hell,” a religious man shouts at Hoffman and her cohorts as he walks past the women’s tefillin booth. Another, in classic Hasidic garb, gives them the finger. Someone even spits as he passes by.

Women of the Wall, which celebrated its 30 anniversary this year, is best known for its campaign to allow women to pray as they see fit at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The group holds a monthly service at the Jewish holy site, and many of its members wear prayer shawls and tefillin when they pray. Since ultra-Orthodox Jews consider it an abomination for women to engage in such practices, the monthly event is often the scene of ugly clashes.

The group began operating its own tefillin prayer booths about three years ago, setting them up once or twice a year, sometimes in Jerusalem and sometimes Tel Aviv. This was the first time the group received the permit it has long sought to station itself right next to the Chabad tefillin booth. In fact, the two booths would be practically touching had several activists handing out literature about organ harvesting in China not stationed themselves in-between them.

“This is forbidden,” says a white-bearded Chabadnik, a look of disdain on his face, as Women of the Wall members set up their tefillin booth next to his in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

Moshe Ben-Avraham, the Chabad rabbi, is having a pretty slow morning. He takes advantage of the lull to take a few strides over to the competition and offer his unsolicited two cents.

“This is forbidden,” says the white-bearded Chabadnik, a look of disdain on his face. Women of the Wall activists will spend the better part of the morning trying to explain to passersby why that is simply a myth.

“Didn’t you know that Rashi’s daughter wore tefillin?” an activist named Dina challenges an ultra-Orthodox woman, referring to the medieval French rabbi known for his comprehensive commentary to the Torah.

“But you’re not Rashi’s daughter,” the woman retorts.

A woman with tefillin tied around her arm. “Where does it say that women are prohibited from wearing tefillin?” asks Anat Hoffman.
Olivier Fitoussi

“Where does it say that women are prohibited from wearing tefillin?” Hoffman asks another. “It doesn’t say that they’re prohibited anywhere. It only says that they don’t have to.”

“But if you don’t have to, why would you?” her interlocutor responds. “It’s not normal.”

Hoffman proceeds to approach a young religious teenager walking with an older man — presumably her father — and asks whether she’d like to lay tefillin. The girl and man look at each other and burst out laughing.

A woman with her hair covered turns to Hoffman, a look of disgust on her face, and addresses her in English. “Thousands of years we’ve lived like this,” she says. “You’re hurting the Jewish people.”

The Women of the Wall  tefillin booth in Jerusalem attracting interest from passersby, July 1, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

“This is simply a provocation,” says another as she hovers around the stand, shaking her head.

“A desecration of God’s name,” chimes in her friend.

‘I’m shaking’

Ana Rubinstein, a Jewish tourist from Warsaw visiting family in Israel, has never put on tefillin before. She says she didn’t even know it was allowed for women. One of the Women of the Wall attendants helps her wrap the black leather straps around her arms and head and has her recite the appropriate prayer. When asked afterward to describe the experience, Rubinstein says simply: “It was strange.”

A man praying at the Women of the Wall prayer booth, July 1, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

She adds: “You don’t know if you’re doing something good or not.”

Two elderly Sephardi women pass by. “I have a very hard time with this because it wasn’t the way I was brought up,” says the more talkative of the two, as she converses with Hoffman. “But at the same time, I really identify with you.”

“Power to you,” adds her friend.

Chana Levy, a 65-year-old Jerusalemite, is probably the only woman here who didn’t need any beckoning. She shows up at the tefillin booth alone. “I’ve always dreamed of doing this,” she says, unable to hide her excitement.

A woman praying in Jaffa Road, Jerusalem, assisted by a member of Women of the Wall.
Olivier Fitoussi

As she recites the prayer, Levy is overcome by emotion. “I’m shaking,” she says.

Despite the abuse to which she and her cohorts have been subjected, Hoffman says that, overall, it’s been a successful morning. Last year, she recounts, supporters of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane came and overturned their booth. “It looks like this time, we’ll be able to leave with everything intact,” she concludes.